The Glatstein Chronicles

Jacob Glatstein

translated from the Yiddish
Yale University Press 2010
A book review by Danny Yee © 2013 http://dannyreviews.com/
In 1934 the American Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein returned to Poland to visit his dying mother, a trip which resulted in the two short autobiographical novels Homeward Bound and Homecoming at Twilight (originally published in 1937 and 1940, after being serialised, as Ven Yash iz geforn and Ven Yash iz gekumen, or When Yash set out and When Yash arrived).

Homeward Bound takes place on the ship carrying Yash/Glatstein back to Europe and then the train taking him to Lublin. It mixes observations of his fellow passengers and their interactions with memories of growing up in Lublin under Russian rule. There is not much structure to this, and any broader connections are left to the reader: the news of Hitler's Night of the Long Knives arrives during the voyage, for example, perhaps echoing a childhood where revolution, tyranny and pogrom were never too far away.

"The seamstress, Beyle Perl, was a Socialist Zionist, who actually tried to recruit me to the cause. I must have been about seven or eight and she was probably seventeen, a strapping girl, with long, thick braids. She talked to me about Dr. Theodore Herzl, about the worker's struggle for a better life, and arranged for us to meet one Sabbath afternoon to visit the organizational headquarters, just off the new road. However, my younger brother betrayed me, and my pants and boots were confiscated to prevent me from going out. Father commented that the Zionist revolution would also carry on without me. As for me, I could swear that those impounded boots forever destroyed my chances for a political career."

Homecoming at Twilight picks up the story — in so far as there is an ongoing story — after Glatstein's visit to his mother (which is never described) and is set in a sanitorium-like hotel in a small Polish town. It describes his conversations and walks with a range of figures: the rabbi Steinman, an arrogant teenage scholar-prodigy, one of his old teachers, and so forth. Their lives and stories present a broad-ranging if scattered portrait of the diverse but intense Jewish engagement with teaching and learning. There are also cameos of an array of petitioners who want messages taken back to America, mostly asking relatives for money, and a description of a visit to the nearby town of Kazimierz.

"As Nuffield led me out of the main street, I noticed that our horse was still standing by the water pump. The driver, installed on an overturned barrel, was talking with a water carrier, who stood there with his pole and pails filled to the brim. The streets which led away from the planetary system of the pump had no trace of squalor, although they were narrow and wound their way downward. Yet no matter how low-lying the streets actually were, the hill above them seemed part of the valley. Its cheerful greenness flooded the area below it with patches of sun and shadow on the graceful little houses and the gardens where tables were set and gay couples sat eating."

Even in translation these novellas hint at Glatstein's power as a poet; if they had been written in English they would surely have a place among the recognised modernist classics. As it is, they offer a kaleidoscopic portrait of Jewish life in Poland in the first third of the twentieth century.

July 2013

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%T The Glatstein Chronicles
%A Glatstein, Jacob
%M Yiddish
%F Deshell, Maier
%F Guterman, Norbert
%I Yale University Press
%D 2010
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780300095142
%P 396pp